Rochelle Steiner Lecture at CCA

Rochelle Steiner, Director of the New York-based Public Art Fund, gave a lecture tonight at CCA. The Public Art Fund is a non-profit organization that commissions new, temporary works of public art by contemporary artists. You have heard of Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls project, perchance? That was them.

I came away really impressed with the Public Art Fund’s work. The organization thinks of itself as a museum without walls, so their public works rotate after six months. Developing a new work could take years, so their commitment to keeping the art temporary is admirable.

Steiner showed Public Art Fund projects by big-name artists—Alex Katz, Mark di Suvero, Juan Munoz, Jenny Holzer, Anish Kapoor (whose Sky Mirror in Rockafeller Center might be one of the most brilliant public interventions I’ve seen), Chris Burden—so I was familiar with all of the artists. I must have been looking for art that seemed incongruous with the artists’ oeuvres, because I was a little surprised that it all looked like contemporary art. I guess I was expecting some public art works to have more of a “community art” feel. More modest, pictorial, “easier.” But it didn’t. And I think that’s wonderful. The work is top-notch, the kind of thing that audiences would flock to at the Venice Biennale. Of course, it was public art for New York, free for anybody walking by to take a gander at, and made in collaboration with city agencies or corporations, yet I didn’t see any signs of compromise, of the urge to dumb down the art for general audiences, or to simplify elaborate installations.

Lest you think that the Public Art Fund is all highfalutin’, they also do educational outreach. In the Waterfalls project, they developed, printed and distributed a curriculum to NYC classrooms, and developed boat and bicycle tours. Steiner also listed the huge economic benefit to the city. Of the Waterfalls’ $15.5 million budget, the City gave a $2m grant; but the economic impact in tourism, boat trips, etc., centered around Lower Manhattan, is estimated to be around $60m. (Not that I think art’s aesthetic payoff isn’t enough.)

I left the lecture with one small regret—there are no equivalents in the Bay Area, no nimble public arts non-profits free from the problematizing consensus-building that dominates civic agencies.

Ann Pasternak, Director of Creative Time, is talking at UC Berkeley’s Kroeber Hall on Nov. 24. Don’t miss it.


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